Friday, January 07, 2011

Back in Capital City, Witnessing the End of Greatness

-- Posted by Neil H. Buchanan

Having finished my visit at Cornell Law School, I am now back in my familiar environs -- Inside the Beltway. When I left in mid-2009, it was not yet clear just how completely the Republicans in the Senate would derail President Obama's agenda, nor how completely Obama would participate in his own undoing. Now we know.

Two years ago, when Barack Obama was about to be sworn in as President, I began what was intended to be a regular series of posts on Dorf on Law, discussing how U.S. policymakers might best respond to the various crises that they then faced. That series turned out to be, at best, an erratic and short-lived effort. In part, this was because of my BADD (Blog-only Attention Deficit Disorder), which causes me to become interested in other topics as they arise, allowing other ideas to die on the vine. In greater part, however, the explanation lies in the increasing clarity of the dysfunction in Washington. After the first few months of the Obama Administration, it was all too clear that they would, to slightly twist the words of their now-departed (and un-mourned) Chief of Staff, "allow a good crisis to go to waste." It was soon no longer meaningful to discuss the big things that could be accomplished only in a time of crisis, when the new game in town had become to guess how little might be accomplished. (Yes, I know that the 111th Congress passed a lot of laws, some of them historic. In the context of what needed to be done, however, the accomplishments were small potatoes; and they represented a series of quarter-steps and missed opportunities.)

Today, in a quite different historical moment, it seems worthwhile to contemplate the damage that seems sure to ensue during the coming two years (and probably beyond), in a world in which we will either move in the wrong direction or, one is reduced to hoping, not move at all. I will not be so foolish as to declare this post the beginning of a series; but it might become one. In any event, my purpose here is to discuss the possibility that the United States is about to accelerate its descent into mediocrity -- a descent that began roughly in the late 1970's. (If there are subsequent posts on this topic, I hope to describe why I view that rough date as the beginning of the possible end.)

We often forget just how close the U.S. came to completely falling apart during the Great Depression. The high points of both the American Communist Party and the various fascist movements in this country were both reached in the 1930's, with the country coming perilously close to falling into the thrall of one or another cult of personality, which would have brought an end to the U.S. as a functioning representative democracy. A skillful effort by President Roosevelt and his party to save capitalism from itself, along with some simple dumb luck (like Huey Long's assassination), allowed the U.S. to reject the extreme agendas that were being peddled to a scared nation. Nativism, racism, and all of the usual scapegoating that feed public hysteria during hard economic times never quite doomed our democracy. We cannot know how close we came to an all-out political cataclysm, but it seems quite clear that it was a very close call.

I think it is too tempting to take comfort in the thought that surviving the 1930's means that we will surely also survive the 2010's. We clearly lack a leader like FDR today. Even the supposedly liberal papers now happily collude in the attempts to paint Obama's presidency as having been too liberal up until now, and his recent actions as attempts to move "to the center," as a front-page sub-headline in yesterday's New York Times described it. Along those lines, I received an email yesterday from the Clintonite "Third Way" group, gloating that Obama's "Appointment of Third Way Board Member William Daley Sends a Clear Message: Obama Will Govern and Campaign from the Center." Describing Daley as a "moderate," Third Way says that he can "heal the breach between the administration and the private sector." In other words, we are in for more concessions (to start with: this acceptance of the insane idea that Obama has been against the private sector up until now) and even less willingness to stand on principle. Recall from Obama's angry reaction to liberals after the tax-cut deal last month that principles are now apparently only for "purists." And purists are apparently bad.

We face, therefore, an immediate future in which the party that controls the House is set to make every vote a game of chicken, and the other party is already saying that nothing is worth fighting for. While Obama will be able to veto some things (assuming they get through the Senate), other matters must be handled on an ongoing basis. How much will the Democrats give away in order to raise the debt limit? How much will they capitulate in order simply to get a budget?

This might all sound a bit dramatic; but there are times when dramatic things really are happening. The problem is not just that there is no will to fight on the Democratic side. It is that even a stalemate almost certainly guarantees the continuation of economic stagnation (if not much worse), turning the political culture even more toxic and more prone to extremist responses in the coming years. The things that made America great -- that gave us a vibrant middle class -- are all under attack. It has become unthinkable for politicians to defend public works, and nice words about the importance of something so fundamental as education are now coupled with a full-on assault on teachers, public schools, and the very idea that there are scientific and mathematical facts that should guide policy.

The two most likely paths, therefore, seem to be either short-term political disaster or continued (and accelerated) long-term decline. There are also much better possible outcomes. Seeing a path to a better future is, however, much more difficult today than it has been at any point in our lifetimes.


Patrick S. O'Donnell said...


Re: "Seeing a path to a better future is, however, much more difficult today than it has been at any point in our lifetimes."

I'm not so sure that's true. Some of us on the Left have long lamented the state of affairs when it comes to national politics, especially the Presidency, and have therefore thought it best to concentrate our social, political and cultural efforts in other, often more local arenas. This is not necessarily a case of sour grapes nor indicative of an inability to appreciate the nature and scope of power at the national level and its historical and potential consequences and implications for progressive political change. Rather, it is a recognition of the structural dynamics at work (some of which Garry Wills has written about in his 2010 book, Bomb Power) in the national arena that provide, even in the best of times, insuperable constraints on what can be achieved (the role of 'third' parties in our history is instructive as well).

The Left, no longer bound to worn-out or procrustean ideological doctrines deliberately decides to concentrate its energies on what Gramsci famously termed a "war of position," focusing on the struggle for cultural hegemony in the widest sense (e.g., local political actions would be included here, for instance, working for low income housing and tenants' rights), rather than placing our hopes and dreams, our efforts and struggles, on the capitalist democratic equivalent of a "war of manoeuvre," that is, the struggle for national power. This is one reason why one of the founders of the Students for a Democractic Society (SDS) in the 1960s, New Left veteran and sociologist (emeritus), Richard ('Dick') Flacks* has written that "One can more easily be a Marxist in the morning, a pacifist in the afternoon, an environmentalist at dinner, and a feminist in the evening, while going to church on Sunday and voting Democrat on election day."

Again, this need not mean we ignore the national arena but that we think of the myriad things we can do outside that plane of politics, sruggles and activities that may one day prepare the ground for a more propitious national politics, at least from a "progressive" viewpoint.

*See his book, Making History: The American Left and the American Mind (1988). See too the debate on Flacks' conclusions as stated in a Boston Review essay (February/March 1996) with relpies from a fair number of Leftist activists and intellectuals:

Patrick S. O'Donnell said...

I might have said that this could also serve as an occasion to re-think our conceptions of "power," more along the lines of, say, Gandhi and Vaclav Havel, or even in the manner of the political philosophy of "poststructuralist anarchism." In the latter, for example, power is conceptualized in terms of "intersections" and "nodes," rather than as "emanating from a source." As Todd May has explained, this is "not to deny that some points of power, for instance the state, may be more determinative for the social configuration than others." We find that in this alternative picture there is a "network of intersecting power which certain points and certain lines may be bolder than others, but none of them functions as a center from which the others emerge or to which they return," although it may very well be the case that, in the end so to speak, macropolitical practices and institutions are founded on micro- and mesopolitical practices and institutions. For a fuller treatment, see several works by Todd May, but especially The Political Philosophy of Poststructuralist Anarchism (1994).

michael a. livingston said...


You write beautifully, but you need to decide if you are doing analysis or advocacy. They're not the same. The inability to distinguish between good and bad, on the one hand, and your own goals on the other hand limits your effectiveness, and makes one wonder if you are capable of seeing the other side of arguments.

Mike Livingston

Charles Wolverton said...

Michael -

I read Neil's post as a description (with which I unfortunately agree except that Neil is way too much the optimist). So, I'm curious what parts you see as advocacy - or at least as advocacy for something other than the country not committing economic, cultural, and intellectual suicide. I view the disintegration as bi-partisan, or perhaps more accurately a-partisan, and interpreted the post as consistent with that perspective.

michael a. livingston said...

I think the post pretty clearly blames one side for all or most of the problem. The Democrats are criticized only for not being still more partisan. That sounds a lot like advocacy to me.

Neil H. Buchanan said...

My thanks to Patrick O'Donnell for offering reasons for optimism. I do, indeed, tend to focus in my writing on the damage that is being done at the national level, mostly because the things that I study most closely are at the macro level. If the Tea Party prevents Congress from increasing the debt ceiling, for example, the consequences will overwhelm anything that can be done through local organizing. (I'm not saying that you claimed otherwise. I'm just putting the stakes in focus.) That is why I have difficulty seeing a path to a better future. You are surely right, though, in pointing out that there ARE paths worth walking.

I love Flacks' comment, minus the "going to church on Sunday." Even though I'm not a Marxist (or, if I am one, I'm not very good at it),
the basic idea that he puts forth is an important one.